FUNABASHI, CHIBA PREF. – Five thousand will be the key number for the Japanese basketball scene when the new B. League tips off this fall.
Japan Basketball Association president Saburo Kawabuchi, during his time as co-chairman of the Japan 2024 Task Force, set the figure as the minimum capacity for arenas to be used by teams in the new league. The B. League is a merger of the two top men’s leagues — the NBL and bj-league.
For many teams, the figure looked like a tall order. In their on-going final seasons, the NBL had managed only an average of 1,728 fans per game through April 10, while the bj-league averaged 1,554 through last weekend’s contests.
But some teams have strived to improve their attendance numbers. The NBL’s Chiba Jets are clearly one of them.
The Jets have led all NBL and bj-league teams in average attendance with 3,558 per game. The bj-league’s Ryukyu Golden Kings are second behind Chiba with 3,232. The second-best NBL team is the Link Tochigi Brex with 2,679.
Last year, the Jets averaged 1,919, which was the league’s second-highest figure, so their average attendance has improved by about 85 percent in a year.
There was no secret, no magic recipe. Jets president Shinji Shimada said that the club simply made an effort to attract new fans.
He added that the fifth-year professional club, which transferred to the NBL from the bj-league in 2013, concentrated on collecting sponsors to stabilize its financial foundation prior to this year. The strategy gradually blossomed and their unrelenting effort delivered many sponsors (the club’s total income was about ¥380 million in its previous fiscal year. Shimada expected it to increase by ¥200 million in the current fiscal year).
This year, the Jets have finally put more emphasis on drawing fans to the arena.
One of the keys was to attract children. Teaming up with the local governments and educational committees, and distributing thousands of flyers at local schools and towns, the Jets have invited a large number of schoolchildren to their home games. They don’t charge for entrance, and they also run various activities for the children before and after games.
The children also take their parents, to whom the club sell tickets.
Going into the 2015-16 season, the Jets also made drastic personnel changes, and that, too, was part of their strategy to attract fans. They acquired star players like Yusuke Okada, Yuki Togashi and ex-NBA player Brian Cook, who has since left the team.
The Jets, who have posted a 20-29 record so far and are in eighth place in the 12-team circuit, hired former Japan national team head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic before this season as well, but let him go in early March.
“We intentionally raised the fans’ expectation level,” Shimada said. “We thought results would eventually follow. We gave our fans higher expectations, like, ‘Oh, we want to see this team, the Jets may be competitive this year.’ “
Shimada confessed that his club has desperately tried to boost its attendance figure this year because it wanted to promote itself as one of the B. League’s must-watch teams. He said that having the most fans in the NBL could see the Jets allocated as one of the teams competing in the B. League’s historic opening game.
“It’s like (Yokohama) Marinos and Verdy (Kawasaki)” Shimada said, referring to the first match of soccer’s J. League at National Stadium in 1993. “If the Jets are selected as one of the teams for the opening game like the soccer game, they will be recognized more throughout the country.
“When they choose teams for that, they will probably choose ones with popular, attractive players and with bigger fan base.”
Meanwhile, although the Jets are topping all the men’s top-league clubs in average attendance, there is still a considerable gap to meet to be able to routinely fill 5,000 seats.
Shimada admits it will be difficult for his club and others with good attendance figures to meet this figure. He added that every B. League-bound team, including wealthy corporate teams, will have to push harder to raise the league’s profile so it will be known by a wider range of people in Japan.
“The basketball scene has to change,” said Shimada, whose Jets recorded an NBL single-game attendance record of 6,835 in an April 9 game against the Link Tochigi Brex at Chiba Port Arena.
Shimada hinted that the corporate teams in the NBL had not made an effort to attract fans to their home games and would not do so before the start of the B. League. The B. League stipulates teams must operate independently from their parent companies and bring in revenue from basketball-related operations only.
“When they incorporate their clubs and have to make money from their basketball operations,” Shimada said, “then they’ll finally be pressed by urgency.”
In fact, some corporate teams have attempted to make their home contests more colorful in the year before the B. League starts.
The Toyota Alvark are probably the leading team among the five corporate clubs in the NBL. Since the end of February, the club has decorated Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 with green boards, their team color, and offered fans more entertainment with comedians and girl groups at their home contests.
“Players want to play in an atmosphere like this, so I think this is great,” Toyota coach Takuma Ito said after a March game against the Brex. “Our company’s trying to do the best they can and I think this is a good first step toward next year.”
Tochigi player Ryan Rossiter, an American, seemed impressed with the effort the Alvark had put in.
“It’s fun to play in that kind of atmosphere,” Rossiter said. “It makes it a little tougher on us (playing as the visitors). But that’s fun, that’s what you play for.”
New league, new names: The B. League has announced how the participating teams will be officially named and three of the five NBL corporate clubs will drop their corporate names.
The three are: the Toyota Alvark, Aisin SeaHorses and Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins. The three will be known as the Alvark Tokyo, SeaHorses Mikawa and Nagoya Diamond Dolphins, respectively, in the B. League.
The Toshiba Brave Thunders will be the Toshiba Kawasaki Brave Thunders, while the Hitachi Sunrockers will be the Hitachi Sunrockers Tokyo Shibuya.
Postseason bound: Through April 14 games, all eight spots for the NBL playoffs have been filled, though the regular season will continue for a few more weeks.
Toyota, Link Tochigi, Toshiba, Hitachi, Aisin, the Levanga Hokkaido, Mitsubishi and Chiba have advanced to the postseason, which begins on May 14.
Toyota currently leads the league with a 41-8 record, followed by the Brex, who have a 39-9 record. The two teams have clinched a fourth seed or better.
Mitsubishi (23-27) and Chiba are the only teams among the eight that currently have losing records.
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